Remembering the 1920s Backlash

This week in North Philly Notes, Jacob Kramer, author of The New Freedom and the Radicals, reflects on the similarities between 1920s politics and today.

I remember well watching the electoral prediction on the New York Times web site swing from a Clinton victory to a Trump win on November 8.  I was surprised, even though I had written in The New Freedom and the Radicals, “when this work went to press in 2015, a presidency that attracted the support—and sometimes criticism—of a broad coalition including antiwar protesters, equal rights advocates, and supporters of economic reform seemed … to have elicited a conservative backlash.”  I was drawing an analogy between the end of the Obama administration and that of the Wilson administration.  Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was followed by isolationism, immigration restriction, corporate cronyism, and a revived Ku Klux Klan.  The similarities between the 1920s and our own time seem palpable.

New Freedom and the Radicals_smIf one can forgive comparing Barack Obama to our foremost segregationist president, there are some important parallels.  Like Obama, Wilson came to power with the support of a coalition of reform-minded progressives, who at the time cautiously embraced movements to their left.  But during the intervention in the First World War, Wilson enacted sweeping measures of repression, unleashing reactionary forces that turned against progressivism in the 1920s.  Like Wilson, Obama became involved in conflict overseas.  Although he drew down the ground troops in Iraq, he became embroiled in war in Afghanistan, conducted secret military operations, and provided air support to a counteroffensive against ISIS.  Obama has not engaged in domestic repression to the same extent as Wilson, but during his administration the government did monitor international communications, and the Democratic National Committee does appear to have undermined Bernie Sanders’s bid for the presidential nomination.

Although the bulk of attention has been focused on Donald Trump’s unseemly statements, poor economic fundamentals may have been equally important to his victory.  World War I was followed by an 18 month recession from January of 1920 to July of 1921; similarly, recovery from financial crises is usually slow, and in the first 9 months of 2016 annual growth per capita was less than one percent.  Using 100 years of presidential election data, the economist Ray Fair at Yale has developed a regression equation that predicts the share of the presidential popular vote going to the Democratic candidate based on the growth rate and the inflation rate.  His equation assigned only a 44 percent vote to the Democrats.  Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win in his view was a testament to how poor of a candidate Trump really was.

The positions of both political parties in favor of free trade also left a political space open to someone who would advocate protectionism and infrastructure investment.  In the postwar period Republicans have usually been against tariffs in principle and since Ronald Reagan’s presidency have called for cuts in nonmilitary spending.  Since the first Clinton administration, Democrats have been in favor of reducing trade barriers, and since the 1960s, the party has been more focused on antipoverty policies than on public works spending.  These positions, combined with the ongoing effects of the financial crisis, made it difficult for Hillary Clinton to win the critical Rust Belt states that went for Obama in 2012.

The comparison may be extreme, but Juan J. Linz’s concept of “political space,” developed in articles written in 1976 and 1980 to explain the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, is helpful in understanding the upsurge of what Stanley Payne has called “right-wing populist nationalism” more recently.  Linz suggests that because fascism emerged later than 19th century democratic political ideologies, such as socialism, classical liberalism, and conservatism, it did not correspond to a specific social group and had to compete for votes.  Fascists made a nationalistic appeal to those disgruntled with the results of World War I, threatened by a rising Marxian left, and resentful of internal minorities.  As Robert Paxton has explained in his textbook on twentieth century Europe, authoritarian economic control was appealing, especially to middle class persons who feared socialism, during periods of unemployment or inflation when laissez-faire policies proved ineffective.  In The Anatomy of Fascism, he has observed that to achieve power fascists also needed help from conservatives.  They were not able to assume leadership based on their own electoral victories, but in poorly functioning democratic systems they could offer a mass base to conservatives who invited them into government.

A similar situation appears to have obtained in the United States in 2016.  Obama’s expansion of health insurance, Sanders’s democratic socialism, and Clinton’s shift to a more progressive message seemed to many voters to threaten a significant expansion of the public sector.  Trump occupied a space that was nontraditional for Republicans and had been left uninhabited by Democrats for some time—protectionism and massive infrastructure spending—at a time when Democrats’ restrained economic policies had restored only minimal economic growth.  Conservatives such as Chris Christie willing to overlook his extreme statements about ethnic minorities seemed to outnumber moderates like Michael Bloomberg willing to defect from the Republican Party and support Clinton.  Support among economically disenchanted groups was just enough to eke out a victory in an outmoded electoral college despite a loss of the popular vote.

These lessons are helpful, but as the historian Joseph Sramek has reminded me, it is probably best to understand Trump within American traditions.  Here Richard Hofstadter’s classic book The Paranoid Style in American Politics is relevant.  Drawing on Theodor Adorno, Hofstadter described as “pseudo-conservative” those who conceal beneath a conservative façade “impulsive tendencies” that would produce consequences “far from conservative” if realized.  In his expounding of conspiracy theories, criticism of NATO, and bellicose positions on North Korea, Trump echoes the apocalyptic rhetoric of Barry Goldwater.  If he were to involve the United States in a large conflict, the latitude given to the executive in wartime, combined with Trump’s avowed hostility toward particular groups, makes one uneasy about this particular replay of the 1920s.

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Why Partition survivors in the US believe it’s vital to keep talking about the trauma of 1947

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost an essay on Partition survivors in the U.S. by Violent Belongings author Kavita Daiya that was recently published on the website Scroll.in

Last week, in the birthplace of America ­– the city of Philadelphia – Indian and Pakistani Americans gathered to share memories of the birth of India and Pakistan.

The unique community event was aimed at generating a new public dialogue on the 1947 Partition migrations through storytelling and memory. In the intrepid gallery called Twelve Gates Arts, devoted to South Asia-related arts, the event Voices of Partition presented witness testimonies from both India and Pakistan. Co-hosted by online digital video project, The 1947 Partition Archive, and part of a global series,Voices of Partition was an unexpected success – a flood of RSVPs meant that the gallery had to double its seats; people were standing, sitting on the floor in the aisles, just squeezing into the space to listen.

daiyacomps.inddFragmented memories

Three local South Asian American senior citizens – Hindu and Muslim – shared their memories of migrating as children across the new and bloody borders of India and Pakistan. Sagar and Reena Banka were originally from Lyallpur and Lahore, and Khurshid Bukhari was originally from Patiala. They described their fragmented, episodic memories of how they heard about ethnic violence in August 1947, how their parents decided to leave their homes, and how they slowly rebuilt their lives, in the shadow of homes and friends lost, in new countries. Many commonalities emerged across their stories: All said their parents thought that they were moving temporarily – until things calmed down. None imagined today’s closed borders, and the wars the two countries have fought.

Unlike other moments of collective historical trauma like the bombing of Japan during World War II or the Holocaust, the Partition experience has not been institutionally memorialised, said Guneeta Bhalla, founder and director of The 1947 Partition Archive, in her framing remarks. Approximately two million people were killed, and over 12 million displaced, within nine months during the division of India. But there is no equivalent to the Hiroshima memorial, or the Holocaust memorial, for Partition.

This inspired Bhalla to start gathering and recording witness testimonies in 2010. Today, the archive has gathered 2,500 testimonies, has offices in five countries, and its goal is to gather 10,000 stories by 2017 from a generation we are fast losing to age. Supported by grant funding as well as private citizens from three continents, the project indicates the global impact of Partition’s migrations. Steadily, this archive is creating a historical record of the price that millions of ordinary people paid for freedom in 1947.

Forging new bonds

As the gentle and eloquent speakers narrated their experiences and shared old black and white photos, a new and palpable emotional community was forged between the speakers and their multi-generational audience. The witnesses shared what they remembered of that harrowing time-colored by their childhood. They recalled the stigma of being derisively called “fugees” – because many didn’t know how to pronounce the word refugee. They also reflected on the lessons of that experience of becoming refugees.

DaiyablogSagar Banka said their experience was mirrored today in the Syrian refugees’ reception in Europe. He urged the audience that while Syrians were being derided in the media as refugees, people needed to recognise that they are more than that label. They are, as his father was, teachers, or perhaps doctors, engineers, lawyers… human beings. Pointing to his and his wife’s contributions to American society, he called for a more humane and inclusive response to today’s refugees so that they would also have an opportunity to become contributing members of society.

Bukhari’s harrowing tale of a narrow escape from Amritsar, to which her Patiala-based family had fled after increasing violence, ended with her reminiscing about a certain kachori stall in Patiala. She said, “Oh, I would love to eat those kachoris again.” Someone from the audience warmly replied, “I’m from Patiala, and that kachori-wala is still there!” In the question and answer session, others in the audience, who had also migrated in 1947, started sharing their stories, their journeys. A 21-year-old South Asian American young man noted that when he discovered that his grandfather had migrated to Pakistan during Partition, it had transformed his sense of his identity: “I guess we were refugees. Refugees.”

Delhi calling

What emerged in this diasporic gathering of those who once were refugees was an eagerness to remember that experience without rancour toward the other religious community. For instance, Sagar Banka affirmed that beyond religion, it was the Punjabi language that, here in the US, bound him in closer friendships with Pakistani Punjabis. The shared familiar itineraries of beloved cities (Lahore, Dehradun, Patiala) and schools spun new inter-religious, inter-national emotional bonds in this contingent community, flecked with the red and gold paintings of the Lahore-based artist Komail Aijazuddin.

Daiyablog2Established in 2011, the goal of Twelve Gates Arts is, in its founder Aisha Khan’s words, to “create and promote projects that cross geographic and cultural boundaries. The gates refer to the fortified gates that walled many ancient cities such as Delhi, Lahore, Jerusalem, and Rhodes – inside which lay the heart of each city’s art and culture. Through this Voices of Partition event, Bhalla and Khan opened the gates of our political borders and divided cultures. The dialogue allowed people, through the sharing of remembrances past, to not only see that Indians and Pakistanis have much more in common than our politicians would like us to acknowledge, but also to forge new relations of peace between us”.

This Voices of Partition is not the first event, nor will it be the last. On April 24, The 1947 Partition Archive will host its first Voices of Partition event in India in Delhi. They had hoped it would attract 100 attendees – they have over 1,000 waiting to register. On Facebook, they have 4,500 interested in attending. It seems this submerged history is still very much alive today, and people want to tell and hear these refugee stories. They will need a bigger venue.

Kavita Daiya holds the NEH Chair in the Humanities at Albright College for the academic year 2015-2016. She is the author of Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender, and National Culture in Postcolonial India

Apologies for the past are political theater

In this blog entry, Ashraf Rushdy writes about the recent phenomenon of apologizing for the past and how it shaped his book, A Guilted Age.

On August 15, 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized for Japan’s aggression during the war and for its colonization of China and Korea. His apology was delivered on the seventieth anniversary of the end of WW II in the Pacific theater.

His apology, according to most commentators, used all the right words – and, in Japan, there is a significant difference in terms that express “deep remorse” and those that offer actual “apology” – but his apology nonetheless did not ring true.  The New York Times called it an “echo,” and the Japan Times referred to it as his “sorry apology of an apology.”  Partly, the effect of insincerity came from the fact that Abe was echoing previous prime ministers’ apologies and making it clear that he was part of a different historical trajectory.  He was, after all, the first Japanese prime minister born after the war, and he therefore belonged to that vast majority of eighty percent of Japanese who, like him, as he reminded us, were born to a postwar world.  So, even while he insisted in a repeated refrain at the end of his speech that Japan must “engrave in our hearts the past,” it was clear that he was tired of being haunted by it.  What he wanted was for future generations “to inherit the past,” but not “be predestined to apologize” for it.  The other reason that his apology rang as insincere is that he sent a monetary gift to the Yasukuni Shrine, which celebrates Japan’s military might, houses the remains of some of its war criminals, and represents to Japan’s neighbors precisely the kind of aggressive ultranationalist politics that led to their colonization.

It was an apology that the world expected, one on which Abe had certainly received a great deal of advice, not only from the panel he set up to consider the wording of the statement, but also from foreign media pundits and political figures.  Indeed, a few months before, no one less than German Chancellor Angela Merkel had urged him not to water down the anniversary apology and pointed out, in a perhaps unwelcome bit of comparison, that Germany had been able to “face our history” and apologize and therefore establish good relations with her neighbors.

Abe’s apology, then, like all political theater, was anticipated, scripted, advised, delivered, and then reviewed.

What does it mean when a politician offers an apology on behalf of a nation for that nation’s past actions?  How did apology become a recognized form in international relations – a diplomatic instrument in the same way as treaties, tribunals, and trade agreements?  That is part of the story I explore and tell in A Guilted Age.

Guilted Age_smIntrigued by this political development, and what it might tell us about the postwar epoch, I set out to discern how apologizing for the past emerged as a practice.  There are notable moments in that relatively short history that stand out for us: Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s apology on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war resonates as Japan’s most felicitous statement of contrition, and German President Richard von Weisacker’s on the fortieth anniversary quickly became the gold standard for political apologies.  I wanted not only to appreciate these important moments, though; I wanted to understand what these apologies were doing, and what led to the widespread belief that they could do this particular work. I wanted, in other words, to discern just what kind of political events and philosophical responses to them inaugurated a guilted age in which public apologies for the past could flourish.

As I undertook my research, it quickly became clear that we lived in a world awash in apologies of all sorts.  Corrupt politicians, scandal-prone celebrities, and rogue corporations regularly apologized to the public – and it was assumed that the public needed this confirmation of penitence.  What struck me was that these apologies differed in meaningful ways – and not just in the fact that some came across as more sincere and others as less.  They differed substantially in what they addressed.  I felt that it was important to make distinctions, and the one that seemed to me particularly salient was whether the event for which the apology was offered had direct survivors or not.  When Abe apologizes for Japan’s conduct during the war, the so-called Korean “comfort women” hear him, as do survivors of Japanese war camps.  When Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades, no one who heard his apology was directly affected by the event.  The historical event for which apologies have been offered – colonization, slavery, religious wars – assuredly have palpable and deeply significant effects on our modern world, but the apologies for them differ, in tone and meaning, because they are addressed in a different way to a different audience.  That distinction, then, between apologies that are for recent political events for which we have survivors (WW II) and older historical events for which we don’t, was worth making so we can better understand the different kinds of works these two distinct sorts of apologies do.

Having explored their origins, and made distinctions among the different kinds of apologies for the past, I set out to understand in just what ways we could understand what these apologies represent.  I focused on two topics.

The first has to do with what precisely an apology does.  Many commentators believe that an apology can undo the offending behavior.  Most of them – but not all of them – believe that this is true in a symbolic rather than a physical sense.  When I say I am sorry that I stepped on your shoe, I indicate that it was done by accident and not maliciously, and so you do not feel that you were targeted or disrespected by the event.  The effects of the event are changed; your rising resentment at being mistreated is derailed and changed to something else.  In that way, an apology can undo what was done.  The analogue statement is “forgive and forget,” which likewise sees the value of erasing the past.  Such an idea, of course, translates badly when we think of larger political and historical events for which apologies are offered; and I wanted to see just how this deep belief in the power of apology’s capacity to erase might residually affect what apologies for the past mean.

The second has to do with what an apology is supposed to express, namely sorrow.  There is a key ambiguity in that idea that politicians and other people with less power sometimes take advantage of by saying we are sorry for instead of being sorry that.  “I am sorry for your loss” means one thing; “I am sorry that I stepped on your shoe” means quite another.  One consoles by grieving, the other accepts responsibility.  That ambiguity is sometimes used deviously in political apologies.  When China demanded an apology from the Bush administration for the downing of one of its military planes, Secretary of State Colin Powell apologized by saying that America was sorry for the loss, but made it patently clear that the administration was not accepting responsibility for the event of the loss.  In other cases, though, the ambiguity appears to be more of an honest categorical mistake made by people who perhaps intuit that grieving is the more appropriate tenor for the occasion.  By looking at key moments in that history and examining some particular apologies, I show that apologies for the past that seem to express contrition are actually expressing mourning, and why that matters.

Apologizing for the past is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that bears our understanding better because it both has great potential and carries great risk. The past matters because we live in a world formed from it, and we need to figure out in what ways we can address it. Some have revered it, others reviled it, some see in it randomness, and others a discernible and meaningful pattern. To these older approaches, we can add those who wish to draw inspiration from it by being consoled that it is past, by redressing its ongoing damages, and, maybe, by atoning for it – and thereby claiming it – in words, gestures, and a mixture of celebration and grief.

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